Good riddance, pig McCrates

Posted by on Feb 14, 2012 | 0 comments

Confined hogs (CAFO)

McDonald’s just announced that they’re asking all suppliers to plan to phase out gestation crates, starting in June.

Now, let’s face it, despite the popular (and somewhat disturbing) McRib, which seems to come and go from the restaurant’s menus in line with commodity pig prices, McD’s is not known for its pork products the way it’s known for its beef burgers and chicken-like McNuggets. It goes through a lot of bacon and sausage in it  breakfast products, however (as much as one percent of the U.S. pork supply), and its main supplier, Smithfield Farms (not to be confused with sustainability leader Stonyfield Farms), is the largest pig “farmer” in the world, raising 14 million pigs a year and slaughtering twice as many as that. However you look at it, this announcement, made jointly with the U.S. Humane Society, is destined to be a major game changer in the U.S. meat industry.

What’s the issue; what is really so wrong with these pens? In brief, gestating sows are typically locked in pens so small that they often can’t turn over, much less turn around. The pens theoretically keep their piglets safe from other sows, and they keep the mothers from rolling over on their babies. Even a review of studies by the pork industry says otherwise, however: “Four major reviews of sow housing systems have been published. Three of the four reached the same conclusion – that sow welfare is equivalent when sows are in well managed crates or pens.” Of course one major problem is that enormous factory farms (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs) are managed like high-volume businesses and not like what we think of as “farms”; from an animal welfare standpoint, they’re not well managed at all.

McDonald’s hasn’t asked for their suppliers to make a commitment yet–only a timeline–and they haven’t yet set their own deadline.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about a traditional farm with 20 or 30 pigs, or even 200 to 300, where a human being feeds them and checks to make sure they’re not injuring themselves. (McDonald’s isn’t buying from your local farm.) CAFOs have tens of thousands of pigs in confined warehouses, fed by robots, with more people managing their waste than managing their welfare–because in the U.S., we have more stringent rules about controlling animal waste than we do about how we treat the animals themselves. In that environment, getting rid of crates in favor of larger pens means requiring more space and human labor, which means that pork might end up costing McD’s a few pennies more than 83 cents per pound. (That’s the current commodity price; a few years back, it bottomed out at a horrifying 35 cents per pound. At those prices, your local farmer–who might actually care about his or her pigs’ welfare–will never be able to compete against CAFOs.)

But it sounds as if there’s going to be some progress soon. How soon? McDonald’s hasn’t asked for their suppliers to make a commitment yet–only a timeline–and they haven’t yet set their own deadline. Bob Langert, the company’s VP for Sustainability, has made it clear that they’ll set that timeline once they know what’s feasible for their suppliers. “It’s not a simple process,” he said to a New York Times reporter. “We buy a finished product from our suppliers, who are buying from a processing facility that is buying from producers and farmers who raise the pigs–who in turn are buying piglets from farmers who have the sows. There are lots of stakeholders and collaboration that are going to be involved.”

I can sympathize with Bob, who has been a pretty decent champion for animal welfare in a company (and an industry) that isn’t always behind him. As Mark Bittman points out, 12 years ago he pushed for larger cages for chickens, and immediately, the nation’s chicken producers went from a standard of 48-square-inch cages to 72-square-inch cages. (That said, a piece of copy paper is 93.5 square inches.) But I’d argue that he and the company as a whole could afford to be a heck of a lot pushier than they historically have been. Yesterday’s announcement saw a bump in McDonald’s stock, and I’m willing to bet that shareholders would actually welcome news that the company is on the forefront of this issue, and not lagging behind. Case in point, the national burrito chain Chipotle is devoutly crate-free, and since they went public five years ago, they’ve seen annual growth of 43.5 percent.

But this new announcement by McDonald’s came only after a lot of pressure from other directions. In recent months a lot of folks have seen this gruesome video, which documents disturbing treatment of pigs, assembled from footage taken by a Humane Society investigator who visited a Smithfield subsidiary. After that video went viral in December, Smithfield committed (not for the first time–the first time was five years ago) to phase out gestation crates within ten years. Hormel, which produces SPAM–among other pork products–announced two weeks ago that they would also be phasing out such crates in the next few years. And many of Hormel’s suppliers are in Colorado and Arizona, two major hog production states that recently passed laws banning gestation crates over the next five years. (Florida and Oregon have similar statutes.)

So yes, this announcement may prove to be one of the most important corporate actions to affect our global food system in quite a few years. Too bad the company is still so far behind.

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